Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Girl Who Didn't Sell Oranges

She was called the ‘Muse of Paris’ by the Empress Eugenie. Beautiful and wealthy, she held famous Salons attended by artists and writers. She was a patron of the Arts, encouraging young and talented people. She also collected art and antiques.
Princess Mathilde Bonaparte loved her life in Paris, but she had a tough time getting there. Born in 1820, she was the daughter of a German princess and Napoleon’s brother, Jerome. She grew up in Italy, living in Rome and Florence. She enjoyed balls and parties and studied many languages. Her life may seem idyllic, but she lost her mother when she was very young. Her father was mainly interested in her as a useful pawn in the marriage stakes.

Her beauty attracted many suitors, and she set her sights on the romantic musician Liszt, at one stage. However, young Mathilde soon only had eyes for one man. Her cousin, Louis Napoleon, handsome and suave, attracted her attention and they were soon engaged. Louis was poor and in exile then, so Jerome didn’t approve. The engagement was broken.

Marriage to Prince Demidoff

After Jerome met the fabulously wealthy Russian Prince Anatole Demidoff he was extremely anxious to secure him for his daughter. The Prince was obsessed with the Bonaparte family and collected Napoleonic memorabilia. He made Jerome pay a large dowry for the marriage in spite of his wealth.

The couple lived in Russia for a short time where the Princess made a great impression on Tsar Nicholas 1, her mother’s cousin. He liked her beauty and bright personality. The Tsar even said that he would have liked her to marry his son!
The marriage turned out to be a disaster. The Prince abused poor Mathilde and kept his mistress, Valentine de St. Aldegonde. Mathilde entreated him to give Valentine up but he refused. Demidoff even slapped the Princess at a ball. This was called the ‘slap that was heard around the world’.

Mathilde eventually fled to Paris with her handsome lover Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, who became director of the Louvre, and her jewelry. Finally the marriage was annulled. The Tsar made the Prince settle a large allowance on the wronged Mathilde. She even had trouble keeping her jewelry which Demidoff was demanding. She could now fulfil her long-held dream of living in Paris and being a prominent figure in the world of arts and fashion.

Mathilde in Paris

Mathilde helped Louis Napoleon financially with his coup against Louis Philippe. She played the role of the Imperial Princess for her old lover. Mathilde probably still held a flame for her old fiancée but Louis Napoleon wanted a young, untouched bride to be the Empress. He met the lovely Spanish Eugenie at one of Mathilde’s Salons.

The Princess appears to have had a great time in Paris. She wore the latest fashions by designers such as Worth. She held Salons attended by writers, such as Dumas and de Maupassant. She employed Theophile Gautier as her librarian. She collected art and painted herself. She even painted with Giraud. She also had her handsome lover! After he died she lived and may have married another artist, Claudius Marcel Popelin.

Princess Mathilde did take her royal role seriously enough to form a charity, however. She founded a house for sick and disabled girls which she called ‘Asile Mathilde’. She also established scholarships for writers and artists.
Princess Mathilde was thankful for her wealth and lovely life. She remarked that: “If it weren’t for him [Napoleon 1], I’d be selling oranges in the streets of Ajaccio.”


Theresa Bruno said...

Thank you for the post. Last night I watch a PBS special about Marie Antoinette and was surprised how little I knew about her and French history. I have vowed to learn more.

Viola said...

Hi Theresa,

Thank you so much for your comment. I know much more about British history but I love to read about European history.

Marie Antoinette is fascinating. There are so many different opinions of her character.

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